Four women undermining Modi's clean govt pledge

Four women undermining Modi's clean govt pledge
Indian Prinister Narendra Modi (L) talks with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (R) prior to a ceremonial reception for President of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete in New Delhi on June 19, 2015.

Four women - two in his Cabinet and two others in his ruling party - are giving Prime Minister Narendra Modi a big headache after becoming embroiled in controversies that threaten to undermine his pledge of clean governance.

There are calls for External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to resign for their role in helping businessman Lalit Modi get British travel documents in the United Kingdom last year as his Indian passport was revoked at the time. Mr Modi, who is not related to the prime minister, is under investigation by Indian authorities over his financial dealings.

Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani is facing court proceedings for allegedly providing false education qualifications to the Election Commission and Ms Pankaja Munde, who is a minister in Maharashtra state, is accused of not following procedures in handing out government contracts worth around two billion rupees (S$42.5 million).

All four politicians denied any wrongdoing, while Mr Modi has yet to make any public statement, his silence on the controversies providing the opposition with ammunition to attack him.

"Our prime minister is so articulate that his silence today is deafening," said Congress party spokesman Tom Vadakkan as the party made fresh demands yesterday for Ms Raje and Ms Swaraj to step down.

The Aam Aadmi Party organised a street protest yesterday, with many of the protesters carrying placards with photographs of the four politicians and demanding their resignation.

The chief minister of the northern state of Bihar, Mr Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) party, also asked the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to "own up to its responsibility".

Mr Modi won last year's general election with an overwhelming majority by voters tired of inefficient governance and a string of corruption scandals that came to light during the second term of the Congress-led government.

Since taking office, Mr Modi has promised probity in office and to take tough action against corruption. On completing a year in office in May, the government highlighted the lack of corruption as one of its major achievements.

Now, analysts said, the controversies could potentially hurt PM Modi.

"This is a major embarrassment because after completing one year in office, he had proclaimed that the days of leaders being involved in corruption were past," said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar. "His (Mr Modi) not speaking is damaging for the party."

Said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore: "There is this tendency for the opposition to grab an opportunity where it can hit the prime minister and BJP leadership the hardest. Still, there are issues of impropriety involving the chief minister and the external affairs minister."

The controversies could also potentially upset legislative business in the upcoming session of Parliament starting on July 21.

Mr Modi hopes to get approval for new land acquisition rules and the goods and services tax.

Opposition parties have warned that they will block proceedings until Ms Raje and Ms Swaraj, in particular, put in their resignation.

So far, the BJP, which has also started preparations for a tough electoral battle in Bihar later this year, has dismissed the controversies as non-issues and accused the opposition of blowing matter out of proportion.

"These controversies are all smoke and no fire. The prime minister has said on record he will continue to keep working and government will work to deliver governance and development to Indian citizens," BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli told The Straits Times.

He also noted there was no dilution in investigations of financial irregularities against Mr Lalit Modi and said the controversy surrounding Ms Irani arose from a typographical error. He added that there was no evidence yet of any wrongdoing on Ms Munde's part.

The scandals have also brought out the divisions within the BJP.

The party's senior patriarch, Mr L.K. Advani, who has no formal role, pushed for clean governance even as the BJP continued to back its leaders.

"For a politician, to command people's trust is the biggest responsibility. What morality demands is... (the) need to maintain probity in public life," he told an Indian newspaper.

This article was first published on June 30, 2015.
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